Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell. Timber Press. £16.99
Beatrix Potter was a botanist, story-teller, farmer and gardener. Her stories are set in gardens. Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny trespass in Mr McGregor’s garden. He hoes his rows of cabbages. He puts up a scarecrow using Peter’s blue jacket. If rabbits are caught in his garden, they are made into rabbit pie.
Is it possible that Beatrix Potter was like Mr McGregor?
When she was a child, her family visited gardens, in London, Scotland and in the Lakes. She studied flowers, kept notes of their varieties and she painted them, delicate, beautifully observed watercolours. And then, a single-woman in her late twenties, she started painting mushrooms and other fungi in all their subtle and startling variety. And she started writing letters to four-year-old Noel Moore, stories that grew into the tale of Peter Rabbit. Mr McGregor was not one gardener, but the embodiment of every Scottish gardener she’d known and observed. Bur Mr McGregor’s garden was largely one garden, Lingholm gardens near Keswick. However, as Beatrix Potter wrote, “It would be vain to look for it there as a firm of landscape gardeners did away with it, and laid it out anew with paved walks.” But the garden has been preserved. Marta McDowell appreciates the horticultural precision of Beatrix Potter’s brush. “Peter’s binge eating takes place in an early summer garden where rows of French beans provide shade to the maturing lettuce, carrots and radishes.”
The following summer, 1903, she stayed at Fawe Park. Her sketches in Fawe Park became the settings for Benjamin Bunny’s adventures. The pear tree espaliered on the walls “provides the entry point for two fictional rabbit burrows”. After the death of her fiancé, she spent the summer in a Welsh garden, Gwaynynog, and took consolation in “the productive but not tidy, the prettiest kind of garden, where bright, old-fashioned flowers grow amongst the currant bushes”. This garden became the home of the Flopsy Bunnies and it also came “to influence, on a reduced scale, the design of her garden at Hill Top Farm”.
It was two months after Norman Warne’s death that she bought the 34 acres of Hill Top Farm. “Gardening eases grief. Beatrix launched herself into the pleasant distractions of making her own garden.” Rather than come to the Lakes and live on the grand scale, she had chosen a working farm with a modest cottage and garden. Neighbours brought her plants. She stole some honesty from a compost heap. And she went to Mawson Brothers in Windermere to buy “lilac, mock orange, rhododendrons and more”.
There was a practical delight in gardening and a workman-like pleasure in farming and there were more stories. Tabitha Twitchet “inflicts corporal punishment to a floriferous backdrop of irises and peonies”, in Hill Top garden. The simple-minded Jemima Puddleduck tries unsuccessfully to her hide her eggs in the rhubarb patch. And in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers Beatrix Potter includes a picture of her orchard and a view from her house roof.
This is a delightful book for those who treasure their tales of Beatrix Potter and love gardening. It is illustrated with many original watercolours and some very fine documentary photographs and beautiful ones of the gardens. But it is more than that. The connection between place and writing is interesting and adds to the stories, for these tales, with their intensely wonderful pictures are made for adults to share with children. Marta McDowell, by telling Potter’s life through her gardens, reveals the practical woman who knew her garden, and her countryside and the ways of animals and people.
Beatrix Potter would not have welcomed rabbits into her garden, but she would not have been as savage as Mr McGregor or quite as determined to be rid of them.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com